The Pearsons punch me in the gut like few other television families ever have. Like so many Americans, I am captivated by the show “This is Us,” and it seems that each Tuesday I surrender a little bit more of my emotional health to it. This week the matriarch of the Pearson family, Rebecca, met with a neurologist to assess the extent of her memory issues. (I’ll say no more about that; I’m no spoiler!)
One of the tasks Rebecca had to do, to test her cognition, was draw a clock. The neurologist was barely done asking Rebecca to do this, when a flood of memories came back to me and all of a sudden the family was not fictional, but my own.
Several years ago, we had moved my mother from our house to an assisted living facility. The major impetus for the move was so she would have a community and not have long days alone in the house. I met with the social worker at the facility and told her I was beginning to be concerned about Mom’s memory. You have to understand that my mother wasn’t just intelligent. Her mind and her memory were legendary. She could add long figures in her head and had a keen business sense. Throughout my education, her clever mnemonic devices helped me memorize countless historical names, dates and facts. Our after-school trips to the grocery store to retrieve a few items warranted no lists but instead sentences like “Aunt Polly left baby socks on turtle graves.” Apples, pears, lettuce, bread, squash, onions, tea, grapes. Oh, what fun we had making up the most outlandish sentences we could create!
So obviously Mom’s bouts of confusion were unfathomable, and I didn’t know what to do; should I take her to a doctor? That would scare and worry her. Were the lapses just a part of the aging process? A result of her recent stroke?
“Ask her to draw a clock,” suggested the social worker. She went on to explain that spatial dysfunction is an early indicator of cognitive issues or dementia. She suggested this might be a way to gauge for myself if there was anything to be concerned about.
Intrigued, I wanted to do the experiment, but it’s really not something one can casually ask someone to do, right? One leisurely afternoon I got Mom on the topic of art which led to her shaking her head and saying, “I never could draw at all.” (That’s so true!) Surely you can draw basic things, I said and, to emphasize my point, handed her paper and asked her to draw several common items, including the clock.
After a few minutes, she handed her handiwork back to me.
“Well, anyone can draw those things,” she laughed.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the clock: circular, with hands, and with all the 12 hours. But the numbers screamed at me from the page: jumbled and bunched up in one corner of the circle rather than evenly spaced out.
Previously in this blog I mentioned that the decade of the 20-teens was one of massive and, often heartbreaking, changes for our family. That afternoon, as the sunlight carelessly bounced off us, we shared a good laugh over mom’s failures not only in the art department but in sewing (Ask my sister-in-law about the pants Mom attempted to sew for my niece: They would have been lovely had Jenny’s legs differed in height by a foot, like the trousers.) Yet that day, like others over the years, was a milestone in my mid-life journey with aging parents. That day, that clock foretold the future.
Nothing encapsulates the agonizing disease of dementia as much as the title of Patti Davis’ book about her father, Ronald Reagan: The Long Goodbye. Our family’s decade was one of long goodbyes, first to my father and then my mother.
Along the way, there were other goodbyes as well. I remember May 2011 when our oldest daughter sang Lady Antebellum’s “Never Alone” at her high school graduation. It was a cloudless summer sky and a beautiful ceremony. I choked up not just from her sweet voice but from the lyrics that spoke to me. I realized then that I was going to feel alone once she left for college– without her daily presence in my life. I knew our nuclear family was about to change. And, looking at my parents seated near me—my father, still weakened from heart surgery—I somehow suspected that more loneness would be coming my way.
Before I sat down to watch this week’s episode of “This is Us,” I was going through a box and came across a photo of Anna singing that day. How could I fully know, then, the long road that lay ahead as my nest emptied and my parents left me.
I don’t know how the Pearson triplets will cope with the changes that lie ahead in their family, but kudos to the writers who made such a painfully familiar topic pierce so many of our hearts. Made us a little less alone.
May the angels protect you
Trouble neglect you
And heaven accept you when it’s time to go home….
May your tears come from laughing,
You find friends worth having,
As every year passes
They mean more than gold….
I’ll be in every beat of your heart when you face the unknown.
Thank God, my parents were never alone. None of us are, despite the moments that make us feel otherwise. But damned those clocks, and the long goodbyes that follow. Stay strong, Randall.
“Never Alone,” written by Jim Brickman, 2006. Recorded by Lady Antebellum.